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How Practical Is mHealth?

Have a medical problem? Ever more frequently, the answer to that question is "there is an app for that."

The mHealth space is booming. Just yesterday, The New York Times ran an article titled "Redefining Medicine With Apps and iPads."

For 2012, the amount of venture capital funding pouring into the sector has already surpassed 2011 numbers, according to Rock Health. Q3 of 2012 saw 70% more investment cash than Q3 of 2011. Meanwhile, startups in the broader medtech sector are "struggling to get financial deals," acknowledges Glen Giovannetti, head of Ernst & Young's global life sciences practice. By contrast, the mHealth market apparently has a bright future--in the near and long term and is projected to be valued at $8 billion by 2018. 

Still, rebooting the world's healthcare system is no small feat and it is difficult to get an accurate sense of how effective mHealth will be helping to make that happen--at least in the short term.

The potential challenges of using mobile technology for health applications are significant, according to a recent GlobalData report. The report cites the example of an app that works in conjunction with an iPhone-4 attachment to treat thyroid diseases. As the report points out, for the technology to "achieve profitability, the app and accompanying hardware would need to sell in the millions and be able to accommodate different phone variations, while also maintaining the LFA cassette fitment orientation, with respect to minimizing light scatter, and reducing the need for software compensation." It continues: "The camera variation from phone to phone will have to be accounted for in the software, allowing the app to make accurate measurements, unless every consumer would be willing to buy an iPhone, or the iPhone is supplied as part of a test kit."

The report goes on to argue that medical apps can go far to assist patients and physicians but suggests that the "medical community should wait and see how long the diagnostics app craze will last."

There is some truth to that, of course. There has been impressive innovation in the world of apps. But the simple truth remains that many of them are terrible when it comes to longevity. A study from earlier this year found that apps, in general, are used an average of 20 times before the user loses interest. I myself can think of several health apps I have on my iPhone that I have probably used less than that. At AdvaMed 2012, Kenneth Riff, MD, vice president of strategy and patient data management at Medtronic explained how his employer is "a little less enamored with [mHealth] technology" than many companies and more focused on unmet clinical needs.

Still, the mHealth field has tremendous potential. While the critics are correct to ask tough questions about the field's short-term prospects, the nascent field of digital health is only going to get stronger, as technologists devise apps that can, say, predict a heart attack before it happens. Or before the tricorder becomes a reality.

Brian Buntz is the editor-at-large at UBM Canon's medical group. Follow him on Twitter at @brian_buntz.

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